If you’re looking to learn about the history of blackjack, its origins, its increasing popularity over the decades, its transition to the online world and its presence in India, then you’ve come to the right place.
We’re about to delve into the history of blackjack, where and when we believe it began and how online blackjack evolved into the game we all know and love today.
Sometimes it’s easy to know exactly where and when a particular tradition, sport or game started.
But with some, it’s virtually impossible to know all the details about where it started and how it evolved given how long ago it was. And the history of blackjack is a case in point.
But here are the more common theories as to when, where and how blackjack all started on its way to becoming what is arguably the most popular casino card game in the world.
For the record, in some cases, these weren’t early appearances of the game of blackjack as we know it now. But rather, early versions of the game that eventually became known as blackjack.
That the Romans were big gamblers isn’t up for debate: they really were.
Roman historians have pointed to numerous examples of Romans gambling on all manner of things, from dice to the outcome of gladiator fights in the Colosseum. There was even a game played for money called ‘nuts’ that involved throwing nuts into a jar or triangle. They really were into their gambling.
But if the Romans did in fact play an early version of blackjack, it didn’t necessarily involve playing cards as we know them today. Instead, they probably used wooden blocks with different numerical values.
And that’s about as much as we know about Romans playing blackjack!
In the famous book “Rinconete e Cortadillo”, the two protagonists travel around Seville playing veintiuna.
If there are any Spanish speakers among you, you will know that translates as ‘21’ and the characters themselves describe the object of the game as ‘to reach 21 points without going over and that the ace is worth 1, or 11.’
If the name of the game in the story alone isn’t reason enough to suspect this was an early version of blackjack, then the rules surely confirm it beyond doubt.
But it’s worth pointing out that the two players in the story were in fact card cheats!
It’s unlikely they counted cards but rather, they’re likely to have been guilty of dodgy shuffles and other underhand tactics.
There’s also plenty of evidence that the history of blackjack stretches back to France in the 1700s. Then, the game was named “Vingt-et-un”, which also translates as 21.
There’s little about its rules that are known but we do know who was rumoured to enjoy it. Fans of “Vingt-et-un” included the mistress of none other than King Louis XV, so that would have been circa 1750.
But there’s also evidence suggesting that a version of blackjack was being played a good 100 years before Louis’ lady friend was enjoying it.
And apparently one of its fans was the best-known French person of them all: Napoleon Bonaparte.
The great military leader (1769-1821) was said to enjoy playing a version of blackjack as a way of relaxing away from the battlefield, especially after a great victory.
But Napoleon didn’t get to the post of being the most senior military person in the whole of France without realising there were rules for some and other rules for others. And that he was the one making those rules.
So whereas Napoleon and some of his Generals enjoyed a few hands of blackjack from time to time, his soldiers weren’t allowed to as it was deemed a distraction to their more pressing task of… trying to conquer Europe.
Whereas we don’t know all the details regarding the rules of the game over the centuries, it seems like the basic rules of trying to beat the dealer, not going over 21 and the value of the cards has remained mostly the same from its first appearances to the modern-day game.
But there are other elements of the game that have changed.
One of those changes is that when the game was played in the 1820s in America (see below) only the Dealer was allowed to double up.
These days, not only can the player double up in certain situations but the Dealer can’t double at all, irrespective of the cards they have or the situation of the game.
In fact, in the modern-day game, the Dealer doesn’t make any active decisions at all about their hand: they just deal for themselves until they reach 17-21, or go bust if the count is higher than that.
As the game became increasingly popular in the USA, gambling houses felt they needed to offer something extra to get potential players intrigued and attracted by this new game.
So they offered a bonus: if you were dealt the Ace of spades plus a black Jack (either spades or clubs) you’d get a payout of 10/1. That particular hand and its respective bonus became known as Blackjack and may have been the catalyst for the change of name from 21/Vingt-et-un to what we know it as today.
Eventually, the 10/1 bonus was removed as the game became well-known enough and also after gambling house bosses deemed the payout a little bit too generous. After all, a run of multiple players getting blackjacks over a short period of time could become pretty costly for the gambling operation!
These days, the Blackjack bonus is sort of still in place in the sense that getting Blackjack still pays out more than a normal win. A regular win sees you paid out at evens while winning with Blackjack generally sees you paid out at 1.5x your stake.
But if the bonus is considerably smaller compared to that old 10/1 payout, your chances of actually getting Blackjack are much better.
Rather than the Ace having to be of spades like before, any Ace will do. And you don’t need a Jack of spades or clubs to complete the trick; any picture card will do the job, as will any ten, irrespective of suit.
When playing at casinos or online today, you can also place numerous side bets that tend to be related to the first two cards that are dealt, rather than your final hand.
We talk about them below.
The first appearance of Vingt-et-un in America probably came during the early 1800s when French colonists started playing it over in the USA.
By 1820 it was being played in legalised gambling halls, including in New Orleans. This was around the time that the 10/1 bonus was paid out and that the ‘dealer-only’ rule was in force regarding doubling.
Over in Nevada City, California, a French-born immigrant in the USA called Eleanor Dumont was making a name for herself as a highly-skilled dealer and opened her own gambling house, somewhat inevitably called Vingt-et-Un.
So skilled a dealer was Eleanor and so famous did she become, presumably partly as a rare case of being a female dealer, that players would travel to her club from all around the country to take her on and tell the tale.
There’s also plenty of evidence that it was a popular game among gold prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), in Canada.
In their version of it, any Ace was needed to get blackjack and you didn’t need a Jack to complete it as any card worth 10 points would do.
So more similar to how it’s played these days.
There’s also a theory that the name Blackjack came not from the playing card itself but from the mineral zincblende.
It’s often associated with gold or silver deposits and it's possible that the prospectors used zincblende to describe the top hand of getting 21 in the manner just described. Zincblende’s nickname? Blackjack.
But over in the US in around 1910, the US government decided to ban most forms of gambling over concerns of widespread corruption and organised crime bosses getting rich from owning gambling dens.
So, rather like with alcohol during Prohibition, the game went underground.
Players were desperate for a game and there was no shortage of entrepreneurs and opportunists looking to give them one, even though it was all illegal.
But that all changed again in the 1930s.
After the devastating effects of the Great Depression, the state of Nevada decided to take a gamble of its own and allowed casinos to be built and run in certain parts of the state, including of course the new city of Las Vegas.
In return for allowing the casinos to operate, the state received millions of dollars in taxes and regulated which games were played and how, with the state being as concerned with the rights of the players as much as those of the casino owners.
It was a perfect setting for blackjack to take Las Vegas by storm. Players loved the confrontational nature of the game in the Player v Dealer scenario and found the rules easy to understand, also enjoying the decision-making element of being able to hit/stand, or double up or split, when appropriate.
And so blackjack became a real favourite in Vegas and that remains the case to this day, where it’s arguably the most popular game of all played in Sin City, by millions of visitors from all over the world.
With its simple rules, fast pace and dramatic showdown with the Dealer at the end, Blackjack is one of the better casino games to feature in books, TV shows, movies and other examples of pop culture.
Let’s take a quick look at different times when blackjack has been at the heart of the action over the decades, away from real-life casinos.
In the 1988 hit, Tom Cruise’s character notices that his autistic brother played by Dustin Hoffman (Rainman) has a remarkable ability to remember which cards have come up in as many as five or six decks.
Putting two and two together, he concludes that Rainman’s incredible memory can help him to count cards and beat the house in Las Vegas playing blackjack.
So off to Vegas they go and embark on a superb winning run thanks to Rainman’s ability to predict when the picture cards are coming up. When he knows they’re about to pop up, Cruise increases his stakes, knowing they’re likely to win.
Eventually, the Casinos pick up on it all and the pair of them are invited to take their winnings, hit the road and not come back. But not before they’ve taken the casinos for a bucketload of cash.
Written by Ben Mezrich and published in 2003, the story is about a group of MIT students who master the art of card counting at blackjack and hit the Vegas casinos.
They became known as the MIT Blackjack Team with the operations and financing done by a colourful character called Micky Rosa, who was older than the students and also trained them in the art of card counting.
The authenticity of it all and what actually went down, is up for debate, though.
Even though the book was based on true events in that there was an actual team of MIT students who counted cards at blackjack over a number of years, there are incidents in the book that were either exaggerated or made up for dramatic effect.
21 is the movie where blackjack is featured most heavily because the game is at the heart of the movie’s plot. But it’s not the only one.
Other movies where characters are seen playing it include License to Kill, The Croupier, Casino, The Cooler and The Hangover.
Blackjack is probably the most popular casino game in the world and perhaps only playing roulette for real money is as popular at casinos around the world.
That’s not surprising.
Players like its simple rules, low house edge and feeling of being in control of your own destiny.
Other players like the fact they’re all playing together against the dealer and can play almost as a team, with the intention of getting the dealer to go bust by leaving them with high cards when they’re on say 13, or 14.
Some of the movies mentioned above were big hits and just increased the game’s popularity even more so.
As do stories of massive blackjack wins, which makes players believe it could happen to them.
The first-ever appearance of an online casino was in the mid-90s and blackjack was among the first games to be offered.
The concept of the game is the same in its online version with the added advantage that it can be played at a much quicker pace than in a land-based casino, especially if you’re the sole player at the table, or are playing all the hands yourself.
Another obvious advantage is that unlike land casinos, which generally have opening and closing hours, online casinos run 24 hours a day.
In its ‘mechanical’ version, the cards are randomly shuffled by a computer and players select their stakes and decide what to do (eg. stand or hit) by pressing different buttons on their screen.
Even though live casinos offering blackjack online for real money were around since the late 90s, it wasn’t until around 2008 that they really took off. The reason?
In the beginning, players were hostage to poor internet connections that could cause the game to be interrupted at any given moment and generally, at the worst possible moment.
Huge improvements in technology over the past few years mean that anyone with a decent internet connection can now play with HD pictures and never at the risk of having your game interrupted as a result of technology failing them.
The other big game-changer was the appearance and consequent explosion of the smartphone, meaning players didn’t have to be at home in front of their computers to play blackjack, they could log in to a live casino anywhere and play.
Live Casino blackjack is generally streamed from a purpose-built casino or studio.
Real (human) croupiers deal out the hands the same way as they do in a land casino and players can engage with them or other players to make you feel like you’re actually sitting on the casino floor in a real casino.
The transition from land casinos to online brought a number of added benefits to players and none more so than lots of extra types of blackjack bets that you wouldn’t be able to place on the casino floor.
That’s because Live Casinos often offer special bets. These are bets that are separate to the main action.
In India only the states of Goa and Sikkim, plus Daman (the capital city of the Indian union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu) allow gambling and therefore those are the only parts of India where you’ll be able to play blackjack at an actual casino.
In Goa, they’re a combination of land-based casinos and floating casinos on the Mandovi River.
There are more casinos in Goa than in any other state.
To enter a casino and play blackjack in India you need to be at at least 21 years old, which is appropriate because that’s also the number you’re looking to get in the game itself!
If the rules for land-based or floating casinos are pretty clear- they’re only allowed in those three places- then the rules for playing any form of gambling online are less clear and more subject to change.
So now you know where the game came from in terms of the history of blackjack, who played it and when.
You also know about the changes to its name over the years, alterations to the rules and its rapid growth thanks to the emergence of Las Vegas in the 1930s.
You’ve also read about how going online brought some changes of its own, with players having additional side bets at their disposal and being able to play it round the clock.
The only thing left to do is for you to give blackjack a go!